Language, In Depth: Why the Nation Needs a Strategic Language Reserve

helloglobe_WEBOn November 1, 1941, a little over a month before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, the U.S. Army opened a secret facility in an abandoned airplane hangar at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The purpose of this enterprise was to create a cadre of experts who could speak Japanese. After the war, the new language training center, now known as the Defense Language Institute, moved to Minnesota and eventually found a permanent home at the historic Presidio of Monterey.

In times of war, we always seem to remember the need for people to talk to other people in a language they can truly understand—their own. Unfortunately, without the threat of war, Americans—like the former president of Harvard and former secretary of the treasury Larry Summers—seem to believe that foreign languages are a waste of time and resources because the rest of the world, if they want to talk to us, can be expected to do so in English.

Yet even people who realize that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population does not speak English, and that even those who do speak English can often communicate in that language only on a very basic level of proficiency, add to the problem by joining the stampede for what I like to call “the critical language du jour.” The people who jump on these particular bandwagons seem to be unaware of the fact that their behavior is that of lemmings. In the 1960s and 1970s, following the Sputnik crisis of 1957, everybody was supposed to be learning Russian. In the 1990s there was a spike in Japanese (remember Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun and all those courses on Japanese business ethics?) and German (following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when people were afraid of the rise of a “Fourth Reich”!).

While the Arabic School at Middlebury was established in 1982, on a national scale Arabic remained one of the “less commonly taught languages” until 9/11, when it suddenly seemed as if every single college student in America wanted to study Arabic. The same is true of Chinese: Whereas Middlebury established its Chinese summer Language School as early as 1966, the rest of the nation did not catch up until the late 1990s when it suddenly became obvious to everybody else that China was on its way to becoming a global powerhouse.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with people studying Arabic and Chinese. We desperately need proficient speakers in both languages. With less than 20 percent of Americans fluent in a second language (as compared to 50 percent in the European Union) we sorely need foreign language speakers to remain competitive in a global economy, for purposes of national security, and to participate in worldwide conversations about risks like climate change, global health and resources (food, water, energy), or migration.

The problem is that we need experts in all the most important world languages, not just the one or two “critical languages du jour.” Just as we found ourselves catastrophically short of Arabic speakers after 9/11 (and, more importantly before 9/11!), who is to say that, in the wake of a resurgent Russia, we will not someday wish we had had more Russianists?

Currently, many people in the federal government and consequently many administrators of educational institutions seem to think that some of our traditional languages (except for Spanish) no longer matter. This includes French, German, Italian, and Russian. (It also includes Japanese, which, as recently as the 1990s, was very “hot.”) There are about 110 million people in dozens of countries worldwide who speak French as their native language. About 100 million in central Europe speak German. It is also the most widely spoken second language in Europe, after English. Russian is spoken by some 160 million people—and, as The Economist noted some time ago, we are neglecting a country that remains one of the world’s superpowers at our peril. Japanese is spoken by 125 million people; in 2012, Japan, with a GDP of U.S. $6 trillion, was still the world’s third largest economy behind the United States and China, and ahead of Germany. Yet in the headlong race to throw all of our (dwindling) resources at the language spoken by the people we most fear at any given point in time, we are sending a powerful message to students and the public at large that languages matter only if we are at war with the people who speak them.

What we need is a strategic language reserve, a place, or better yet, many places, where the 10 or 20 most important world languages will always be taught, reliably, year after year, with cutting-edge pedagogy and technology in a setting that is immersive, contextualized, interactive, and high octane. There are only three or four places in the nation that do this, and among these, Middlebury has by far the longest tradition of excellence in immersion language education. As Middlebury’s Language Schools approach our centennial in 2015, we should remember that, except for the German School between 1917 (consider the date!) and 1931, Middlebury has never closed a Language School. This means that Middlebury is one place in the nation where, for a hundred years, students have been able to come and study a particular language in one summer, and then return to study some more one or two or many years later. We now teach 10 languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. And we expect to teach these languages (and others we hope to add) a decade from now and, barring unforeseen disasters, many years into the future. If this country is to remain competitive, secure, and a leader on issues of global import, it will be critical for us to speak the world’s languages.

Michael Geisler is a professor of German and the vice president of the Language Schools, schools abroad, and graduate programs at Middlebury.

But What About English?

It is estimated that 375 million people around the world speak English as their first language; another 375 million, and possibly more, speak English as a second language. Beyond that, even more people speak English to some level of competence, as many as 25 percent of this planet’s seven billion people.

And the demand for the other three-quarters is increasing. Why? “Because English is the language of business and commerce,” says Renee Jourdenais, the dean of the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education at the Monterey Institute. “If you are in China, and you want to do business with Russia or Japan or India, you need a common language, and English often serves as that language.”

English is also the official language for maritime and aeronautical communications, for the United Nations, the International Olympic Committee; it is the primary or official language for nearly 100 countries around the globe. For those who can’t speak English, they are at risk of being marginalized, a phenomenon taking place both far and near. Consider: An estimated one in four children in the United States are from immigrant families and live in households where a language other than English is spoken. As a result, in American schools, there is a significant learning gap between English-language learners and native English speakers.

Being able to teach English to nonnative speakers is of critical importance. Under Jourdenais’s purview at MIIS are both the programs in intensive English and teaching English to speakers of other languages. (The former is for international students seeking to learn English; the latter trains people to teach English.) Here are some of Jourdenais’s thoughts on the learning and teaching of English:

On the need for understanding English
There’s the business and commerce equation, as I mentioned. English is increasingly seen as the lingua franca of the world. If you want to participate in the global economy, if you want to be globally literate, knowing how to speak and read English can maximize your possibilities. Likewise, if we look inwardly at our own country, the demographics of the United States are changing. The number of people who speak languages other than English is increasing. And English serves as a common language for U.S. residents as well. As such, there is a critical need in our country and our schools for teachers who can teach English to nonnative speakers—to help close a critical learning gap between those who come to school English-fluent and those who need to develop their English skills along with their academic knowledge.

On the teaching of English to nonnative speakers
Too often, people assume that if you can speak a language, if you are “fluent” in a language, then you can teach it. That’s not entirely true. Those who want to teach English to speakers of other languages need to know why people need the language and how they acquire it. These potential teachers need a sound linguistic foundation—they have to understand linguistic theory, the structures of language, and theories of how languages are learned. And then there is language pedagogy—how best to teach languages and engage students in their learning experience. These teachers also need to be prepared to teach students who come from different backgrounds with different ways of learning. All of this is so important—these teachers are giving their students a voice in the world.

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  1. Dear M. Geisner,
    I believe that we met at ACTFL last fall. As an assoc. prof. of French and Spanish, I found this article compelling. Today I am sharing it with other colleagues, as I have just learned that the search in our dept. will be for a second full-time Spanish professor, rather than French as I was told. All other instructors in our dept. are part-time, as I am now also. This is disheartening, to say the least. We have no support for French & German, as Spanish is seen as the only important language. In one way, I’m glad that people in Kentucky now see that Spanish is an important language to know: we’ve had a stream of

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    Hispanic immigrants for about 10 years in the area, and many folks see that they are hard-working, good citizens. This is progress in the isolationist center of the country.
    At the same time, there is so much ignorance about other languages in the world. I/we applaud your efforts to wake up Americans to this fact. More “ammunition” appreciated! MERCI BIEN.
    Page Curry, A.B. French, MA, French; DML, French & Spanish, Middlebury

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